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When I was first starting my PhD program at the University of Illinois, I bought ILLINOIS 101: My First Text-Board-Book. I distinctly remember looking through the pages and seeing images of the (now retired) Chief Illiniwek. During my years at Illinois, I learned a lot about the history and controversies surrounding the so-called mascot that purported to “honor” Native Americans by running around the football field and doing Russian splits in the air. To say the least, it was very disturbing, and I was on campus in 2007, the year the mascot was FINALLY retired. It was an emotionally, psychologically, intellectual fraught year. The campus was heavily divided; young people who had grown up going to Illinois football games had a deep love for the Chief (for example, see the Honor the Chief website), while others spoke loudly against the stereotyping and dehumanizing nature of its performance and very existence. So I was fascinated by the existence of a board book that inculcated images of the Chief into very young minds. I have since lost my original book, so I purchased another one for the purpose of my class. Unfortunately, and very interestingly, my new copy does NOT have images of the Chief! I was very sad when I realized this because I had wanted to talk about how children’s books, or more specifically how board books, are used to socialize young children. I wondered if I was crazy and had imagined the Chief in my original board book from 2004.

BUT! One of my students had purchased an older book that still has the Chief images, and she let me keep the book. Check out these pictures:

Older cover

Newer cover

Older title page

Newer title page

Someone somewhere at some time decided that the newer printings of this board book should not include the Chief Illiniwek logo. In fact, in April 2007 the University of Illinois News Bureau reported that the U of I would retain rights to the Chief trademark, that existing merchandise would be able to be sold, but no new merchandise could be designed or sold (I think students have gotten around this by creating t-shirts that say “CHIEF” instead of having the logo, but that’s another story).

Anyway, so I’m assuming that this board book fell within that trademark depletion, and somehow one of my students got her hands onto this older version that still retains the Chief imagery.

Mystery solved, but is the problem solved? This board book, and thus, the Chief image, still circulates. My student got her hands on this book. Others may as well. A quick google search reveals that Chief merchandise is sold on ebay. It is likely that merchandise bearing the Chief logo will become collectors items.

When and where and how does it end?

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My good friend and respected colleague Dr. Debbie Reese posted a blog entry questioning beloved author Neil Gaiman’s comment from a 2008 interview:

The great thing about having an English cemetery is I could go back a very, very, very long way. And in America, you go back 250 years (in a cemetery), and then suddenly you’ve got a few dead Indians, and then you don’t have anybody at all, unless you decide to set it up in Maine or somewhere and sneak in some Vikings. (emphasis mine)

Gaiman responded to Debbie’s post:

I was replying to a specific question about European-style graveyards in the US and who you’d find in them and why I didn’t set THE GRAVEYARD BOOK in America, which was that they didn’t go back far enough, and they didn’t give me the dead people I wanted for the story to work. Obviously (or obviously to me) I wasn’t saying or implying that the country was uninhabited prior to the arrival of Europeans, or trying to somehow render invisible hundreds of millions of people who had inhabited this content for tens of thousands of years — especially after having very specifically written about them, and about that timespan in American Gods.

Read the original post at http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2010/04/what-neil-gaiman-said.html

Scroll down and read the comments as well. Needless to say, Gaiman fans tried to slam Debbie for being “emotional” and blowing things out of proportion, when what she was doing was raising questions about the oft flippant words that we sometimes misspeak about Native Americans, and the ways in which they (mis)shape our (mis)understandings of Native Americans.

Whether or not you’ve read the Newbery Award winning and totally awesome The Graveyard Book, the phrase “a few dead Indians” should give one pause. You may have heard the phrase “the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” which is immediately what I thought of when I read Gaiman’s comment, and it made me sick to my stomach. The phrase “the only good Indian…” is commonplace enough that that is what immediately comes to mind when I hear the words “dead” and “Indian” in the same sentence; that’s how we in this country have been socialized, which shows the power that words can have on one’s psyche. I can’t know what Gaiman meant because I’m not in his brain (although sometimes I’d like to be!), but his apology suggests that he didn’t mean offense. However, many of his fans accused Debbie of looking for fault, being emotional, etc. Wouldn’t you be emotional if there were so many pop culture references to your people being “dead” or “lazy” or invisible in the cultural landscape of the US? I get emotional when hearing/talking about Japanese colonialism, Japanese Internment, the Korean War, the LA Riots, the murder of Vincent Chin, and many other instances of social injustice, even when it isn’t part of my direct experience. For example, this situation makes me emotional. But being emotional (and I don’t think Debbie was irrationally emotional – she always thoughtfully crafts her blog entries) should not invalidate one’s argument, but accusers seem to use emotionalism as grounds for invalidation. Weak.

Because things got so crazy at her blog and on Twitter, Debbie followed up today with another post to clarify who said what and when. Read this new post at http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2010/04/following-up-on-what-neil-gaiman-said.html

Read these posts and the comments, and then take some time to reflect on our assumptions, flippancies, defensive behaviors, unproductive name-calling and accusations.

Boy, am I being bossy this week or what?

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